Shuffling along : Year-round renters search for homes
As sure a sign of Island spring as buds and peepers, the "rental wanted" flyers begin appearing in March. By May the search gets frantic as winter tenants count down to moving day, many with nowhere to go. The nomadic "summer shuffle," marked by twice-yearly moves, has been a constant of Vineyard life for renters. Climbing rental prices and the Island's increasing popularity have made it harder than ever to find that coveted affordable summer rental. Many who settle into affordable winter digs in October find themselves in May trying to stay optimistic as they pack their suitcases one more time.
Artist Eric Hawkes has lived on the Vineyard for nearly 15 years. Last week he boxed his belongings and took them to a storage unit. With a May 15 deadline for moving out of his Vineyard Haven winter sublet and no rental prospects, he will stay with a friend and keep looking. He says he feels lucky to at least have a temporary place where he can bring his 12-year-old cat, Miro.
"I don't know how people can do this on a continuous basis and still have the quality of life they should," Mr. Hawkes says. "When they have to uproot themselves every six months, it's a horrible thing. I can only imagine how hard it is for a family."
His search turned up places costing "a lot of money for not much." He looked at one big room with a toilet and outside shower, and another that was an unfinished basement.
"If I was in college I'd say 'sure, I don't care,'" says Mr. Hawkes. "But being 50 you don't want that in your life."
A visit to the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority (DCRHA) gave him cautious hope for finding a permanent home in the future as he joined a list of nearly 400 applicants seeking rentals and/or rent payment assistance. But it did little to alleviate his anxiety about the present situation.
"I say you've got to be hopeful," says Mr. Hawkes. "I try to be as hopeful as possible, but the reality is overwhelming."
Alex Rothwell, 24, is new to the shuffle. But she's learned the ropes after more than a half-dozen moves in one year. Ms. Rothwell, a gardener who grew up on the Vineyard, lived in a guesthouse on a local farm last fall, bartering work for part of the rent. Cold winter temperatures soon drove her from the uninsulated cabin.
Photo by Ralph Stewart
"I put my stuff in my brother's basement, put the essentials in my car, and stayed with friends," she says. Now she shares an apartment with a friend whose lease is up on June 1. She wants a guesthouse, camp, or shed where she can pay or barter gardening for rent and is willing to clean or fix the place up. Despite modest needs, the search has been discouraging. She's turned down a crowded group living situation, an unfinished barn, even a tree house.
"It needs to be affordable," says Ms. Rothwell. "That's the hardest part. This is a great place to make money, but you can't afford the rent."
Skye MacDuff and her fiancé Rick Kerns are luckier. Although they are looking for a home where they can settle with their two-month old baby, Lily, they can stay with Ms. MacDuff's family indefinitely. They dream of a year-round house, but would take a summer place if they could manage the rent. With Ms. MacDuff caring for the baby, they have to rely on Mr. Kerns's carpenter's pay.
"What I've seen all seems really high, which I can understand because people have to pay their mortgages," says Ms. MacDuff. "It's not affordable here anymore, especially for a young, starting-out family."
Linda Mott-Smith manages to keep smiling while she's on the job greeting Cape Air passengers at the Martha's Vineyard Airport. But after 40 moves in ten years, and only a few weeks until she must leave her Chilmark winter rental, she has to work hard to stay positive. Although she loves the Vineyard as much as she did when she moved here in 1998, Ms. Mott-Smith, who is in her 50s, admits having no permanent home has made it hard to function. She keeps her belongings in a storage unit and her ambitions of developing a healing and astrology practice on hold.
"The worst part is not being able to put down roots, the lack of stability," she says. "It's time-consuming and emotionally draining."
She has camped out, stayed with friends, lived in a moldy basement, and moved into filthy places she had to clean. She and her boyfriend shared a space so small they could only fit one single mattress on the floor, and she was grateful they had a
bathroom and running water. Now she is searching again and so far has found everything is too expensive.
"I'm just trying to hope for the best," she says. "I know where there's a need there's a way. I love this place. I don't want to leave it."
And landlords are not the culprits. Many Island landlords rent out of necessity, to make ends meet, pay mortgages, cover home maintenance, or fund special expenses like tuition or business projects.
According to Robin O'Donnell of Island Real Estate, there are quite a few conventionally priced seasonal rentals on the market, but affordable summer or year-round leases are few and far between. She says her agency occasionally has placed a few tenants in affordable units.
David Vignault, DCRHA director, said that affordable housing initiatives in recent years are making inroads, placing a number of Islanders into their own homes and helping facilitate and fund year-round leases for others. But there are many more with nowhere to live right now for whom things cannot improve fast enough. "There are options but it doesn't make the need less desperate," he says.
For some Islanders the summer move is intentional. Many property owners rent their own houses seasonally to bring in needed cash. Some shuffle veterans gamely report that the moving routine forces them to keep unnecessary belongings to a minimum. A few rare ones even thrive on the constant change.
"I've had the opportunity to live in some of the most beautiful places on this Island," says one young man.
But for most Islanders who are packing, scanning the classifieds, and hoping for a couch to sleep on until they find a place, the summer shuffle is probably the highest and most burdensome cost of Vineyard living.